Demonstrators and police should stay unmasked

The BC Civil Liberties Association, now in its sixth decade, does important and principled work in our province while advocating for individual rights, freedom and law reform. Their good work continues as they arrange trained observers to be on the front lines at Occupy Vancouver beginning this weekend.

However, BCCLA Executive Director David Eby got it wrong when he complained publicly about the Vancouver Police statement:

“For everyone’s safety, the VPD is encouraging participants not to wear masks and discourage anyone around them from doing so.”

Writers, artists, organizers, street demonstrators or social critics in any form degrade messages if delivery is attempted in shadowy anonymity. Imagine Martin Luther King relating his dream with a covered face.  If principles are truly meaningful, heroes state them openly, despite expected consequences.

I realize it is a fact that individuals can be victimized for taking public positions offending others — occasionally, blog contributors at risk of retribution need invisibility — but that is unusual. Almost without exception, crowds don’t need identity protection while on Canadian streets. During events in the past two years, masks were more about avoiding criminal prosecution than anything else.

And, that statement applies equally to police. There is no excuse for law enforcement to remove identification and cover their faces merely to avoid being held accountable for assaults, wrongful detentions or other misbehaviour. These things have been done routinely before now.

David Eby would have been better off supporting the VPD statement with an additional declaration that police too should leave their masks at the shop.

Categories: BCCLA, Justice

7 replies »

  1. I always appreciate the work you do here Norm, but I have to disagree with you here. Many activists were targeted and harassed in the lead up to the 2010 Olympics, and many were arrested pre-emptively before the G8/G20 protests in Toronto. The police show up at all protests and demonstrations and record on video the faces of protesters to identify as many as possible, and keep tabs on who is speaking up against the state. While I don't currently fear being identified at demonstrations, if our civil liberties continue to be eroded I soon may. It is not criminal to hide your face. Let's keep the focus on the real criminals.
    I do however agree with you that law enforcement needs to be held accountable, and thus be identifiable.


  2. Strongly concur here, Norm.

    Masks dehumanize – both police and protester. I personally believe it makes violence more likely – because you are less inclined to see a human being than an abstraction.


  3. Thanks Anonymous 8:51 but don't you see the conflict in your own position wanting police to remain identifiable while you countenance the opposite from demonstrators?

    In my youth, images of civil rights marchers in the US south were burned into my memory. Those people seriously risked their lives – lynchings continued regularly at least until 1968 – but they stood together, faces uncovered, Their messages would have been lost had they employed styles of today's “black bloc” protesters, who are more interested in adventures than in political debate.


  4. What's the difference between masked protesters and anonymous/psuedonymed posters on a blog? That's a real question, not a poke.


  5. If I put up a comment by anonymous that is hateful or libellous, I can be held responsible for its publication. If a person publishes their own pages online using a nom de plume, he/she leaves a trail to the IP address from which they publish.

    The online world is a public one, open to the view of many.


  6. Hi Norm, Anonymous 8:51 here. I appreciate that there is a perceived conflict in my position. We give the police extraordinary powers as well as weapons (lethal and non). To be held accountable to those powers, police officers must be identifiable. I don't think it's fair to compare an armed police officer in riot gear to a masked protester. If the police see a masked protester performing an illegal act, they can arrest them, just as they can arrest an unmasked protester committing the same act. During the G8 protests in Toronto, with a billion dollar security budget, the police allowed masked protesters to commit numerous crimes, and then proceeded to arrest over 900 unmasked protesters who where not involved in any obvious crimes. With ICBC offering their facial recognition technology to law enforcement, we could be getting close to a time when the police can videotape everyone at a protest, run the images through a database and track and intimidate dissenters. It is not a criminal act to wear a mask, and one should not be treated as a criminal for wearing one just because some people wear masks to break the law. Wearing a mask can be a political expression in itself, and to label protesters “illegitimate” for wearing masks, becomes a form of censorship.

    Thanks for the platform to speak my mind. I hope you don't mind me remaining Anonymous.


  7. I fail to understand why people, as a matter of course, would want to remain anonymous in legitimate debate, if the aim is to encourage others to consider issues thoughtfully.

    I have sources here who provide background information but personal circumstances make them potential targets of retribution from interests affected by exposure of questionable activity. Identity protection is worthwhile in most whistleblower situations.

    But, in general, the more people who stand up openly for a set of ideas, the more likely it is that their movement will gain strength. The right wing haters understand this and have been caught sending masked provocateurs into the streets aiming to discredit protesters. (They were caught in Montebello, they've been caught in New York and at other Occupy sites.)

    One example: Decades ago, LGBT lived mostly in the shadow and blacks were told to sit quietly at the back of the bus. Today, people stand up openly for their rights. Discrimination is not socially acceptable. Gay Pride events are part of this healthy openness.

    Similarly, why should people who oppose outrageous behaviour of business and political actors move quietly to the back of the bus, hoping to reach their own destination. Hell no. Stand-up and speak out. Take pride in your beliefs, express them openly.

    Dropping anonymity is easier than you imagine and it improves the conversations.


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